Scarcity Scare Tactics

Via Insty comes this silliness:

Companies in certain sectors use the same behavioral interventions repeatedly. Hotel booking websites are one example. Their sustained, repetitive use of scarcity (e.g., “Only two rooms left!”) and social proof (“16 other people viewed this room”) messaging is apparent even to a casual browser.
For Chris the implication was clear: this “scarcity” was just a sales ploy, not to be taken seriously.

Well, duh.  The oldest advertising gimmick is to threaten shortages:  “while supplies last”, “today only”, “limited to the first 50 customers”, and so on.

I’ve used Expedia quite a bit for my international travel planning (they usually handle cancellations better than the establishments themselves do), and the “only 1 room left” warning elicits a response from me of, “Oh well… if the room disappears I’ll just have to find another hotel.”

You see, true  scarcity can and does work to drive a purchase decision — World Cup tickets being a good example because it’s one event, one time, one place — but all the artificial scarcity (as above) should get just a shrug from the prospective consumer.

Even more, if the establishment uses it constantly (e.g. Expedia), it becomes just white noise:  unless, of course, the customer is a stupid dickhead, in which case they get what they deserve.

The very best reaction to this ploy is to simply say, “Well, if I miss it this time, I’ll just find another vendor or postpone the purchase until the next sale.”  Department stores, who seem only to sell merchandise when it’s “On Sale”, have learned to their cost what happens when you turn discounted shopping into an everyday event:  people only buy during “sale” periods — which is why department stores are dying.

As for the various online travel sites:  if you do find an unbeatable deal for the hotel stay of your dreams at, say, Expedia, check the same hotel’s rates at one of the other booking sites as a backup before making your decision.  (By the way, if the deal “disappears”, try calling the hotel direct;  I once got a rate lower than Expedia’s “Great Deal” at an Edinburgh hotel during the Royal Military Tattoo Week simply by asking for it.)

And ignore the bullshit.


  1. Or the most stupid of all, the years old youtube videos promising a discount with their sponsor for “the first 50 people who use this code” and the code still works.
    Either it’s a flat faced lie that only the first 50 get the discount, or the sponsor isn’t doing much business at all 🙂

    Neither puts the sponsor in a good light.

  2. I laugh when I see those ridiculous “only 3 rooms left at this price” banners. They’re complete BS, of course. My usual tactic is find the best deal on Kayak or (that is, if I’m not staying in an AirBnB or a mom-and-pop shop), then call the property in question and book directly.

    The best travel/lodging advice I’ve found is to always book with the host property directly, especially if it’s not a major chain hotel, but rather a smaller property or a one-off. They have to pay a percentage to the OTAs (online travel agencies), so even if you end up paying the same price as you would if booked through an OTA, there’s a good chance they’ll put you in a better class of room, resolve issues more in your favour, etc. I’ve been thanked by a smaller hotel’s owner, who was manning the check in desk when I arrived (Hotel Alpina, Mürren, Switzerland).

    Likewise when buying flights, I’ll search for price on OTA sites, but will book directly with the carrier, since I’ve never seen an OTA price that’s more than 5% off the airline’s. Much as I don’t trust airlines, I distrust these “discount” shops a thousand times more.

    1. Those discount sites have a tendency to sell the same seat multiple times, charging high “service charges”, then canceling the bookings but not refunding the “service charges”.

      Even if you do get a ticket from them, after adding the “service charges” you’re often more ending up paying more than if you’d bought from the airline directly.

  3. Like CW DXer, I too book directly with hotels, rental condos etc. that I find using Google or an OTA. The OTAs are soon going to be disintermediated by cheap website software and Google.

    I sometimes still use an OTA when I see what looks like a good deal or a special come-on. I did that last December for a last minute in Huatulco Mexico. I got a “You can be out of frozen Canada on a Mexican beach day after tomorrow for peanuts if you click here, now” promo email from the airline, took the deal, then needed accommodation in a hurry.

    Shortly after I booked, on a free cancellation site, I got a call from the Hotelier suggesting I cancel and book directly with her. 5 minutes of polite haggling on the phone got me 40% off for a promise of cash on check in. And she wanted cash cash, US bucks, none of your third world pesos. She is a sharp lady, a good operator and kept all of her promises.

    I did get badly burned by a sleazy bunch called HomeAway (or VRBO, they’re the same). I booked and paid for a condo in London for 10 days starting April 25. I was seduced by their guarantee of coverage if there were any problems at all with the booking.

    Got there, the condo was uninhabitable, under renovation. The host claimed he’d emailed me but I’m quite sure he just screwed up and forgot. No biggy really, mistakes happen.

    The villain was HomeAway-VRBO. I called them, they assured me they would cover all expenses, they would send me a list of equivalent or better listings with them and I could choose the best one at no additional cost.

    They did send the equal or better listings, I chose a nice looking place, they said fine, just pay the new place online via us and you can move right in, we’ll refund your money plus the extra cost of the new place to your credit card in 5 to 7 days. “Pay them via you? You already have my money, why don’t you pay them?”, I asked. They declined to pay, the smell of rat was over powering, I declined to deal with them any further and to tell this little story wherever possible. They did refund my money.

    I called a nice little operation I have used a few times before, called Studios2Let in Bloomsbury, they had a vacancy and all was well, except for the 4 high stress hours wasted finding the uninhabitable place, phoning various bozos and placating an upset wife, all after a red-eye from western Canada to Gatwick.

    Do not ever use VRBO or HomeAway.

    1. You’re not the first to get burned by VRBO. I feel your pain. I use a credit card (Chase Sapphire Preferred) that has all sorts of protections on it for this kind of stuff and the (thankfully) few times I’ve needed to use it they didn’t disappoint. Travel concierge services are worth their weight in gold. Or Sapphires.

      As to Kim’s post, two years back I was looking for a hotel in Montreal for a weekend getaway. I knew where I wanted to stay, and, you guessed it, “Only 2 rooms left at this price” was flashing, etc. Well, life got in the way and I never booked that day. A week later I came back to make the booking, and–surprise, surprise, surprise–there were only 4 rooms left at the same price, same hotel, same dates. So I called the hotel and booked over the phone. When I got there, the hotel was not over half full.

      Caveat Emptor, suckers.

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